Big plays hurt defense

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Carrington Byndom (23) has struggled with big plays this season.
Carrington Byndom (23) has struggled with big plays this season.

A big play can change the landscape of an entire game. A team can shift momentum in its favor and never look back. Through three games the Texas defense has given up its fair share of big plays only to be aided by the resurgent Longhorn offense. However, with Big 12 competition rapidly approaching, these excusable defensive lapses could very well decide Texas’ overall fate. Here’s a look at the stats.

Let’s define a big play as an offensive gain of 25-plus yards. If that’s the case, the Texas defense gave up three big plays Saturday against Ole Miss, not including the 100-yard kickoff return by Jaylen Walton in the fourth quarter. Ole Miss wide receiver Donte Moncrief caught a 75-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Bo Wallace, and running back Jeff Scott added a 48-yard touchdown run in the third. Moncrief also hauled in a 36-yard catch in the second quarter. All this against a defensive unit projected in the preseason as one of the best in the nation. To be fair, the Longhorns still picked off Wallace three times and racked up five sacks, but when it comes to the likes of West Virginia or Oklahoma, three or four big plays given up can all but decide the game immediately.

This wasn’t just a one-game slip-up, either. The Texas defense has showed signs of vulnerability all season. In the home opener, Wyoming quarterback Brett Smith exposed a weak spot in the secondary, hitting receiver Robert Herron for an 82-yard touchdown in the first quarter as two Longhorns whiffed on tackles.

Even while pitching a shutout against New Mexico a couple of weeks ago, the Longhorns gave up a multitude of 10-12 yard runs early on, including a 29-yard burst by quarterback B.R. Holbrook.

For the most part, these big plays are happening not because of missed assignments or lapses in judgment but because of not wrapping up on a tackle attempt, one of the biggest fundamentals in all of football. While most fans can agree a big hit is exhilarating to watch, a sound tackle for a minimal gain can be just as effective. The Longhorns missed 16 tackles against Ole Miss, which in turn allowed the Rebels to rack up 214 extra yards. Three of the Rebels’ touchdowns came off of missed tackles that could have ended the play near the line of scrimmage.

The Longhorns currently rank 60th in rush defense (48 yards per game), 27th in passing defense (180 yards per game), and 32nd in total defense (328 yards per game) — numbers that Texas fans wouldn’t typically expect against a relatively soft preconference schedule.

If the Longhorns don’t correct these mistakes, the next few weeks could turn south quickly. In the next five weeks, Texas faces Oklahoma State, West Virginia, Oklahoma and Baylor; the 1st-, 3rd-, 11th- and 8th-best offenses in the country, respectively. While big plays can be brushed off as early-season rust, the Longhorn defense will face a bitter reality against the heavyweights of the Big 12 if adjustments are not made.